Thursday, 19 May 2011

Thoughts on Disney calling time on Panini's UK originated Marvel material.

Well, now that Blogger appears to be back up and running properly again, and I've got a chance to put this up...

I signed off the last Blog Post I put out by mentioning the rather excellent Death's Head and Hulk story by Simon Furman and Simon Williams, from the UK newsagent comic Marvel Heroes. I hope you all went and grabbed yourself a copy. Firstly because it as really good. But secondly, rather disappointingly, because it may well be one of your last opportunities to enjoy such a story for quite some time.

Last week Bleeding Cool put up the bad news, that Disney (Who are Marvel Comics' Parent Company, these days) had decided to call time on allowing Panini to produce new strips featuring Marvel characters for their younger reader focussed Sensational Spider-man and Marvel Heroes comics. It is something which I can't say comes as an absolute surprise. Last year I blogged about the announcement that Disney were to take over the full handling of Marvel's International licensing and what that might mean for the future of Panini's UK market Marvel books. Nevertheless, it is rather disappointing news.

When Marvel UK was wound up and broken down Panini acquired many of its former parts. In particular the Doctor Who Magazine and reprint rights for Marvel's American titles in the UK. Since the mid 90s they have been reprinting Marvel books in monthly 'Collectors Editions' comprising three standard US issues for the price of roughly one US book, along with fortnightly licensed titles from the Ultimate Comics line and in more recent years new material in the form of Sensational Spider-man and Marvel Heroes. Sensational Spider-man was the first to do that. It was originally a tie-in to the 90s Fox TV cartoon of Spider-man (Remember that?). But when they ran out of material attached to that series the book continued, with new strips originated by artists and writers here in the UK. The first since the closure of Marvel UK.

And you know what? They've actually been pretty darn good too - bringing in characters such as Captain Britain, the Black Knight, Union Jack and Spitfire, even Death's Head into these new stories - introducing younger readers to characters beyond the rosters of The Avengers or X-Men for the first time. And while these are non-canon stories, aimed at a younger readership, the art is always strong and well coloured and the stories themselves are pitched spot on for their intended audience.

In short, Panini have been doing a good solid job.

And that's why the news that this arrangement has come to an end is such disappointing news.

Now I can see why Disney might have decided to make this move. At least on paper. They own Marvel Comics - including all its properties and characters - and paid a lot of money to acquire that.

They don't own Panini. In fact over in mainland Europe Disney and Panini are even direct publishing competitors.

Disney's point of view is probably that they are unhappy to have a competitor producing new comics featuring characters owned by Disney.

And on paper, that's understandable.

But not the whole picture.

Because here in the UK at least, that's not really true.

Here in the UK Panini are not the competition.

They are pretty much the totality of Marvel Comics' company's presence in the magazine racks of Newsagents and Supermarkets across the UK. They're also the company's presence in a lot of bookstores, where Panini's version of many Marvel trade paperback collections are on the shelves ahead of their US published counterpart, and often include much better introductions, back matter and the like.

In the UK Panini effectively ARE Marvel Comics. It's the Marvel name on the covers of their comics, and the Marvel name on the spines of their paperback collections.

While Disney might see this as asserting themselves over a competitor, the UK comics market and that of the larger countries in mainland Europe are very different. Here in Britain the Newsagent still remains the primary outlet for comics. US market books are only sold in specialist Comic Book and Collectibles stores, of which there are still not that many in the UK and Ireland. Through Panini, Disney get the Marvel name on Newsagents shelves. Right now, without them they don't.

If Marvel Heroes and Sensational Spider-man were to disappear from UK shelves, as a result of this decision, it wouldn't be a blow dealt to the competition by Disney. It would be much more like cutting off their nose to spite their face. Because in reality all that it would actually achieve is the removal of two Marvel titles from the racks - reduction of coverage for Marvel Comics in the UK's primary sales outlets.

Does that really do them any favours?

I actually wouldn't have thought so.

Now I know that I come from a very different age of comics (Arguably a golden age in some respects) when Marvel owned a UK office, and new content was not only allowed to be originated here but also allowed to intermingle with licensed properties too. I know that was a bit of an ideal age. I know that Panini are not Marvel UK.

But this news does sadden me to hear, nonetheless. It irritates the heck out of me, if I'm honest.

Firstly, because that Disney's decision to stop Panini producing new material of this kind means that another avenue for British comic creators to get regular paid work has been closed. And there really aren't many of those left in the UK comics industry. Aside from 2000 AD and CLiNT it's almost exclusively a US reprint market these days. That's how things have ended up, sadly. And while the borders for working in American comics have come down a lot in the past 20 years, it's another blow for comics in this Country.

But secondly it once again raises an issue which I've been wondering about quite a bit over the past couple of years. It gets brought up again and again at UK cons - where are the next generation of comics readers? I'm a 31 tear old male. Marvel's current output is very much aimed at my kind of demographic, an audience which can embrace adult themes and content. But in terms of all-ages material, Marvel comics really has stopped publishing that.

You know, one of my favourite books of the past year was an all-ages friendly Marvel Book. That was Thor: The Mighty Avenger by Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee. It wasn't Marvel cannon, but it was well-written, had great art, and actually got me interested in Thor - a character I'd mostly written off in mainstream comics, because of his cod use of Ye Olde Englishe, and the frankly poor grasp of mythology which many writers using him seemed to have.

I got into reading that title through an issue in which Thor and The Warriors Three ended up going on a Pub Crawl, getting hopelessly lost, and barging into Captain Britain. Fighting/Bonding ensued. I loved that issue. And it got me back issue hunting.

This book got the right balance. Suitable for all ages, but not patronising or too derivative to put off older readers. It really was a back to basics approach to the character, which fitted in well with the Movie which is now in cinemas. And it gained some pretty solid critical acclaim, too.

So what happened to it?

Marvel cancelled it.

Because sales were not high enough. Sales gauged, one might argue, at estimations for a top selling adult book.

But here again is the problem I have with Marvel. Since the 1990s they have moved further and further away from producing books which are younger reader appropriate, let alone friendly. There have been some attempts at producing titles for that kind of age range, but more often than not these have primarily been adaptations of say the Fox TV cartoons of X-Men or Spider-man. They've never really been very good, or had much scope.

In a title like Thor: The Mighty Avenger the balance was so right. But Marvel weren't willing to back that. Because they don;t seem to see younger readers as an important area into which they want to expand their business. It seems for that they would rather put cartoons on the Disney Channel, and hope that kids who watch those move on to reading actual Marvel comics when they're older.

I personally think tat this approach is more than a little naive. Especially given that here in the UK the number of homes which even have access to Satellite TV (The means by which you can access the Disney Channel in the Britain and Ireland) is pretty small.

Comics and TV are two very different mediums. Expecting kids to become long-term regular comics readers automatically in their mid-teens (Which is pretty much the earliest age at which the bulk of Marvel's current output becomes suitable), when they have read no comics earlier in their life, is a bit of big ask.

Especially given the high cost of US comics.

To me it's just not realistic.

The success which Panini has had with it's own UK generated Marvel strips is proof, in my opinion, that there clearly is a market for Marvel comics for younger readers here. A market which Marvel US clearly cannot cater towards. They just don't make enough books for that target audience that could even be reprinted in their place.

I could understand if Disney's decision was motivated by some new interest in producing new all ages material themselves, and syndicating it across other Countries. But I see no evidence of this. It just seems more like stamping their authority down. In the meantime a good run of material comes to an end, and a gap on the shelves is created.

And as Rich Johnston points out in that Bleeding Cool article if Titan have any sense they'll put out an all-ages DC superhero title or two of their own, to fill that gap.

Most disappointing. Through Disney this definitely is Marvel's loss.


  1. i have to agree with everything you say, even Spiderman and friends title drawn by the wonderful Nigel Dobbyn for Panini will stop, so thats 3 titles doomed with originated british art and scripts , not good for the U.K scene.

    what also was sad was Marvel U.S never really cared about the material created in the U.K only one of my Spidey stories got reprinted in the U.S out of 32 issues, there has been some wonderful stories produced over the years some collected in pocket book format and everyone who worked on Spectacular Spiderman adventures, Marvel Rampage and Marvel Heroes did their best to entertain the kids.
    it's been a pleasure working for Panini /Marvel U.K and i'll always be proud of the work .

  2. Is there really no chance of Disney stepping into the gap? Disney comics are produced internationally, so why not Disney-Marvel comics?

    Yes, this is bad news for the Panini editorial people, but if Disney do start putting out their own European Marvel stuff, then that's still an outlet for UK artists and writers, surely?

    I suppose it all depends on whether Disney have any plans to take over international production of Marvel titles, and I don't see why they wouldn't. Remember that Disney are far more internationally-minded than Marvel.

  3. It's possible, Kelvin. But at present there's no evidence to support that they are. It seems that Disney are just telling Panini that from now on they may only reprint US originated material. Nothing more.

    They're not launching any European Marvel office that we know of. If they did, and some British creators got to produce new work through them, that'd be great. But right now it's not on the cards.

    Disney only want Panini reprinting previously published Marvel young readers material, most of which is not of a very high quality, and certainly not as strong as what Panini have been putting out themselves.

    Hello Jon,

    Thanks for stopping by. An incredible shame to hear this is coming to an end. And also that so little of your Spidey work has made it back across the Pond. I've been really impressed by it, and Panini's UK created work in general.

    From panels to fact files in those books.

    They also seem to me to have a much greater understanding of Marvel as a global property, full of international characters, than Marvel US seem interested in portraying these days.

    A great shame.

  4. A well written and thought provoking post. As a father to a three year old and an avid comic reader/fan I want him to read comics like I did as a kid and Marvel would be my first choice as I grew up with their heroes (DC to me was just a dodgy 60's batman (which I love still) and a couple of Superman movies.

    Marvel Heroes was a great book I could read to him. He loved the adventures in that book (It even managed to introduce him to good ol' Death's Head, not exactly a character to read to a three year old, but it was handled well and not out of of place).

    We can only hope Disney will understand this market (and you'd think if anyone could, it would be Disney) and continue a younger reader line and not just Marvel Super Hero Squad which is fun, but not real Marvel.

  5. I suppose the hope is that this is one of number of moves Disney has made since taking over Marvel. The most high profile before this was them pulling the license for the Muppet Show comic from Boom. However, Bleeding Cool has been following hints and rumours of other developments for a bit (I draw them together here).

    It may be control freakery and the loss of cash is a very minor drop in their vast bucket but this gives some hope they will be working on their own material: "An edict by Disney has come down that all Marvel superhero content must originate from the US." The best case scenario is that they'll be working on all ages material and making sure it gets into venues that put it in front of potential buyers (something Disney knows an awful lot about - if this was a purely Marvel-led initiative I'd not be so confident they'd have the ability to break out of the Direct Market ghetto), before syndicating it around the world, which means they get a bigger slice of the pie and more centralised quality control. As with other Marvel comics it need only be initiated in the US and can bring in talent around the world, which is where Brits tend to do disproportionately well. After all they'd be crazy not to get Roger Langridge back on the Muppet Show comics (but then again he wasn't even informed of the changes, he found out from the news) and there were a tonne of great artists on the Panini comics. So I am still hopeful Disney might manage to do the right thing and, if they can manage this in the UK and worldwide then they'll be doing what we have all wanted for a long time - started hooking younger generations into comics. Hopefully, we'll look back on this as the start of the big turn around for comics. But I am an optimist ;)

  6. Some random thoughts i had elsewhere which i shall try and assemble into something useful:

    I'd forgotten that Disney now own Marvel US. On the continent, Pannini is one of Disney's fiercest rivals, and the Italian giant has a some what...competitive relationship with Disney. Unfortunately for Pannini, whom had Marvel reprint rights both in the UK and Europe, this looks to be a case of Disney sticking it to one of their competitors. The sudden cancellation of Marvel Heroes is probably the first in a large step of changes for comics over here.

    I wouldn't be suprized to see the license with Pannini revoked and it put up for tender.

    What I can't fathom, is Disney's 'one size fits all' approach to comics for overseas markets (but probably isn't a huge suprise given that no American brand makes any concessions to other cultures). The UK originated strips didn't deviate from any established US continuity and just offered stand alone adventures featuring various US stars. I suppose you could make a case that if that is all they are doing, then what is the point? Then again, don't places like India do their own thing with Marvel's various properties, so will they too be forbidden from producing originated strips based on Marvel properties?

    The biggest concern is the future for Pannini. They've already had problems with the Doctor Who license, as BBC Worldwide apportions the license for comics / magazines with more and more companies, whilst bringing some elements back in house (the Annuals, fiction and interestingly, an originated Graphic Novel 'The Only Good Dalek') . The agreement with IDW and others has forcably stopped Pannini from being able to collect as trade paperbacks their ongoing Doctor Who strip (annoying for me now, as the Tenth Doctor saga 'The Crimson Hand' will now not be collected and I've long since jettisoned the magazines!). With so much of their income being generated from licensed titles, I can see this making a big dent in their operations.

    I feel for Pannini - they've done a sterling job in keeping the fires of UK creativity stoked - 2000AD cannot accomodate everyone wanting to break into comics. The UK comics market is slowly dying (just witness the trouble the likes of The Dandy and Beano have had in trying to appeal to readers brought up with technology - just why does a seven year old need an iPhone anyway..?) and this isn't a good thing.

    The option for Pannini and others like them could be to generate their own originated concepts and ideas (after all, that's how a number of Marvel UK characters came about - such as the mighty Night Raven in the pages of Hulk Weekly), but will they go down this route?

    Or will it just mean that adventure comics for younger readers will just cease to exist in the UK? (seriously, i can't see the mature , slightly sweary and bloody likes of most modern mainstream US comics being allowed to be sold to the under 12 over here...) And if Marvel employ this tactic, whats to say other license holders wont pull the same stunt with Titan and it's stable of licensed newsstand adventure titles?